Phonological history of English consonant clusters

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The phonological history of the English language includes various changes in the phonology of consonant clusters.

H-cluster reductions[edit]

The h-cluster reductions are various consonant reductions that have occurred in the history of English involving consonant clusters beginning with /h/ that have lost the /h/ in certain varieties of English.[1]

Wh-cluster reductions[edit]

  • The reduction of /hw/ to /h/ is the replacement of /hw/ with /h/ before the vowels /oː/ and /uː/ which occurred in Old English. This is due to the effect that rounded back vowels have on /h/, giving it velar and labial characteristics making /hw/ an allophone of /h/ before these vowels; the true phonetic /hw/ then eventually became perceived as this allophone of /h/ and no longer a phonologically distinct speech sound. This is most conspicuous in how, which differs from the five Ws in starting with an h, due to this sound change in Old English (). The same sound change occurred later in who – in Old English this had the vowel ā, hence the /hw/ sound was retained and spelling changed to wh in Middle English, but following a vowel change to /uː/, /u/, this underwent the same sound change as how had earlier.
  • The merger of /hw/ and /w/ is the merger of /hw/ (spelled wh) with /w/. It occurs in the speech of the great majority of English speakers. Notable dialects that retain the distinction include Irish English, Scottish English, and Southern American English. This occurred after the reduction of /hw/ to /h/ meaning that wh- is usually /w/ before orthographic a, e, i and y, but /h/ before orthographic o. (Orthographic a is usually phonologically /ɒ/ or /ɔː/ after /w/ in some varieties of English.)

Reduction of /hj/[edit]

The reduction of /hj/ is a process that occurs in some dialects of English that causes the cluster /hj/ to be reduced to /j/.[2] It leads to pronunciations like /juːdʒ/ for huge and /juːmən/ for human; hew and ewe become homophonous. It is sometimes considered a type of glide-cluster reduction, but is much less widespread than wh-reduction, and is generally stigmatized where it is found. Aside from accents with h-dropping, this reduction is in the United States found mainly in accents of Philadelphia and New York City; also in Cork accents of Hiberno-English. In some dialects of English,[clarification needed] the cluster /hj/ (phonetically [çj]) has been reduced to [ç] so that hew and yew differ only by the initial consonant sound (i.e. [çuː] and [juː]).[1][3][4]

hl-cluster, hr-cluster and hn-cluster reductions[edit]

The hl-cluster, hr-cluster and hn-cluster reductions are three reductions that occurred in Middle English that caused the consonant clusters /hl/, /hr/ and /hn/ to be reduced to /l/, /r/, and /n/. For example, Old English hlāf, hring and hnutu became loaf, ring and nut in Modern English.

Y-cluster reductions[edit]


you, yew
[juː jɪʊ̯]

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Yod-dropping in English is the elision of the sound [j][clarification needed] in certain contexts following other consonantal sounds within the same syllable. The term comes from the Hebrew letter yod, which represents [j].

Yod-dropping before [uː] occurs in most varieties of English in the following environments:[1]

  • After [tʃ, dʒ, j], for example chew [ˈtʃuː], juice [ˈdʒuːs], yew [juː]
  • After /ɹ/, for example rude [ɹuːd]
  • After consonant+/l/ clusters, for example blue [ˈbluː]

There are accents, for example Welsh English, in which pairs like chews/choose, yew/you, threw/through are distinct: the first member of each pair has the diphthong [ɪu] while the second member has [uː]:[1]

  • chew [ˈtʃɪu], choose [ˈtʃuːz]
  • yew [ˈjɪu], you [ˈjuː]
  • threw [ˈθrɪu], through [ˈθruː]

Many varieties of English have extended yod-dropping to the following environments, on condition that the [j] be in the same syllable as the preceding consonant:

  • After /s/, for example suit [ˈsuːt]
  • After /l/, for example lute [ˈluːt]
  • After /z/, for example Zeus [ˈzuːs]
  • After /θ/, for example enthusiasm [ɛnˈθuːziæzəm]

Yod-dropping in the above environments was formerly considered nonstandard in England, but is today also heard among well-educated RP speakers.[1] In General American yod-dropping is found not only in the above environments but also:

  • After /t/, /d/ and /n/, for example tune [ˈtʰuːn], dew [ˈduː], new [ˈnuː]

Glide retention in these contexts has occasionally been held to be a shibboleth distinguishing Canadians from Americans. However, in a survey conducted in the Golden Horseshoe area of Southern Ontario in 1994, over 80% of respondents under the age of 40 pronounced student and news without yod.[5]

The areas marked in pink show parts of the United States where a distinction between /ɪu/ in dew and /u/ in do is made.[6]

General American thus undergoes yod-dropping after all alveolar consonants. Some accents of American English preserve the distinction in pairs like loot/lute and do/dew by using a diphthong /ɪu/ in words where RP has /juː/, thus [lut]/[lɪut], [du]/[dɪu], etc.[6]

However, in words like annual, menu, volume, Matthew, continue, etc., where there is a syllable break before the /j/, there is no yod-dropping.

Some East Anglian accents such as Norfolk dialect extend yod-dropping not only to the position after /t/, /d/ or /n/, but to the position after nonalveolar consonants as well, so that pairs like pure/poor, beauty/booty, mute/moot, cute/coot are homophonous.[1] Watchers of UK television are likely to be familiar with Bernard Matthews's description of his turkeys in his television advertisements as bootiful for beautiful.

In yod-pronouncing dialects, the spellings eu, ew, uCV (where C is any consonant and V is any vowel), ue and ui, as in feud, few, mute, cue and suit generally indicate /juː/ or /ɪu/, while the spellings oo and ou, as in moon and soup, generally indicate /uː/.


Yod-coalescence is a process that palatalizes the clusters [dj], [tj], [sj] and [zj] into [dʒ], [tʃ], [ʃ] and [ʒ] respectively.

This occurs in unstressed syllables in many varieties of English. Occurring in unstressed syllables, it leads to pronunciations such as the following:

educate /ˈɛd͡ʒʊkeɪt/
nature /ˈneɪt͡ʃər/
pressure /ˈprɛʃər/
measure /ˈmɛʒər/
azure /ˈæʒər/

It also occurs in some accents in stressed syllables as in tune and dune. Yod-coalescence in stressed syllables occurs in Australian, Cockney, Estuary English, Hiberno-English (some speakers), Newfoundland English, South African English, and to a certain extent[7] in New Zealand English, Scottish English (many speakers), and even some varieties of English in Asia, like Philippine English (many speakers, due to influence by the phonology of their mother languages), resulting in further examples as follows:

dew /ˈdʒuː/
tune /ˈtʃuːn/
resume /rəˈʒuːm/
assume /əˈʃuːm/

This can lead to additional homophony; for instance, in the case of /dʒ/, dew, due, and Jew come to be pronounced identically.

Yod-coalescence has traditionally been considered non-RP.[citation needed]

See also

Other initial-cluster reductions[edit]

Reduction of /wr/ to /r/[edit]

The reduction of /wr/ to /r/ is a reduction that causes the initial cluster /wr/ to be reduced to /r/, making rap and wrap, rite and write etc. homophones.

Old English had a contrast between /wr/ and /r/, the former characterized by lip rounding. In Middle English, the contrast disappeared and all cases of initial /r/ came to be rounded [rʷ].[citation needed]

/wr/ and /r/ remain distinct in the Doric dialect of Scots, itself derived from Middle English. In Doric, /wr/ is pronounced /vr/.

Reduction of /kn/ to /n/[edit]

The reduction of /kn/ to /n/ is a reduction that occurs in modern English where the historical cluster /kn/ is reduced to /n/ making knot and not homophones.

All of the kn words stem from Old English forms beginning with cn-, and at the time all were pronounced with an initial /k/ before the /n/. These words were common to the Germanic languages, most of which still pronounce the initial /k/. Thus, for example, the Old English ancestor of knee was cnēo, pronounced /kne͡oː/, and the cognate word in Modern German is Knie, pronounced /kniː/.

Most dialects of English reduced the initial cluster /kn/ to /n/ relatively recently; the change seems to have taken place in educated English during the seventeenth century, meaning that Shakespeare did not have the reduction.[citation needed]

Reduction of /ɡn/ to /n/[edit]

The reduction of /ɡn/ to /n/ is the reduction of the initial cluster /ɡn/ to /n/. In Middle English, words spelt with gn like gnat, gnostic, gnome, etc. had the cluster /ɡn/. The humorous song The Gnu jokes about this, even though the g in gnu may actually have always been silent in English, since this loanword did not enter the language until the late 18th century.[8] The trumpeter Kenny Wheeler wrote a composition titled Gnu High, a pun on New High.

Reduction of /s/ clusters[edit]

Reduction of /s/ clusters is the dropping of /s/ from the initial consonant clusters with voiceless plosives (environments /sp/, /st/, and /sk(ʷ)/) occurring in Caribbean English. After the initial /s/ is removed, the plosive is aspirated in the new word-initial environment, resulting in pronunciations such as:

spit → 'pit ([ˈspɪt] [ˈpʰɪt])
stomach → 'tomach ([ˈstɐmək] [ˈtʰɐmək])
spend → 'pen ([ˈspɛnd] [ˈpʰɛn]) (also affected by final consonant-cluster reduction)
squeeze → 'queeze ([ˈskwiːz] [ˈkʰwiːz])

Final-cluster reductions[edit]

Final-consonant-cluster reduction[edit]

Reduction of final consonant clusters occurs in African American Vernacular English and Caribbean English. The new final consonant may be slightly lengthened as an effect.

Examples are:

test → tes' ([tʰɛst] [tʰɛs])
desk → des' ([ˈdɛsk] [ˈdɛs])
hand → han' ([ˈhænd] [ˈhæn])
send → sen' ([ˈsɛnd] [ˈsɛn])
left → lef' ([ˈlɛft] [ˈlɛf])
wasp → was' ([ˈwɑːsp] [ˈwɑːs])

The plurals of test and desk may become tesses and desses by the same English rule that gives us plural messes from singular mess.[9][10][11][12]

Reduction of final /mb/ to /m/[edit]

The reduction of the final cluster /mb/ to /m/ occurs in modern English. In early Middle English, many words spelled with mb (plumb, lamb etc.) had the cluster /mb/, while in other words (limb, crumb) had an silent b added because of hypercorrection.[13]

Consonant-cluster additions[edit]

Prince-prints merger[edit]

The prince-prints merger is a merger of /ns/ and /nts/ occurring for many speakers of English. For them, prince and prints are homonyms as [prɪnts]. A [t] is inserted between the [n] and the [s]. Likewise the fricative [ʃ] often becomes [tʃ] after [n], so that pinscher and pincher are homophones.

These similar clusters may also merge:

  • /nz/ and /ndz/ as in bans, pens and Hans sounding the same as bands, pends and hands. The merged form being [nz]
  • /mt/ and /mpt/ as in dreamt and attempt. The merged form being [mpt].
  • /ms/ and /mps/ as in camps and hamster. The merged form being [mps].

Consonant-cluster alterations[edit]


Yod-rhotacization is a process that occurs for some Southern AAVE[14] speakers where /j/ is rhotacized to /r/ in consonant clusters causing pronunciations like:

beautiful /ˈbruːtɪfəl/
cute /ˈkruːt/
music /ˈmruːzɪk/

S-cluster metathesis[edit]

S-cluster metathesis is the metathesis of final consonant clusters starting with /s/ occurring in African American Vernacular English[14] as well as many other varieties of English.

For AAVE speakers with S-cluster metathesis the following words can undergo the following changes:

ask /ˈæks/
grasp /ˈɡræps/
wasp /ˈwɑːps/
gasp /ˈɡæps/

S-cluster metathesis is lexically determined.

The above pronunciations in fact have a long history, and all the metathesised forms have existed in English for around as long as the words themselves, with varying degrees of acceptance.

For example, the Old English verb áscian also appeared as acsian, and both forms continued into Middle English. The two forms co-existed and evolved separately in various regions of England, and later America. The variant ascian gives us the modern standard English ask, but the form axe, probably derived from Old English acsian, appears in Chaucer: "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" (Wife of Bath's Prologue, 1386.) It was considered acceptable in literary English until about 1600[15] and can still be found in some dialects of English including African American Vernacular English. It is, however, one of the most stigmatized features of AAVE, often commented on by teachers. It also persists in Ulster Scots as /ˈaks/ and Jamaican English as /ˈaːks/, from where it has entered the London dialect of British English as /ˈɑːks/.

Merger of /str/ and /skr/[edit]

The merger of /str/ and /skr/ is the pronunciation of the consonant cluster /str/ as /skr/ occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English making scream and stream homophonous as /ˈskriːm/.[14]

This phonological pattern in AAVE is a phonological pattern that's been mentioned from time to time, often by speech pathologists. Presumably the speech pathologists were concerned about this use of skr in place of standard English str because it was not clear whether the combination of sounds was an indication of a disorder or dialectal pattern. Still the scream–stream merger has not been observed or recorded in the literature nearly as often as other sound patterns. There are three possible reasons for this: (1) One is that because skr only occurs in positions where str can occur in general American English, there will be limited opportunity to produce the sound. (2) Secondly, the scream–stream merger may be viewed as a feature of the speech of young AAVE speakers that is not maintained in adult AAVE. (3) Thirdly, the scream–stream merger may be associated with AAVE spoken in certain regions of the United States.[original research?]

Common words in which the /sk/ sequence occurs are given below:
street /ˈskriːt/
stretch /ˈskrɛtʃ/
straight /ˈskreɪt/

In summarizing her research on the cluster, Dandy (1991) notes that the form is found in Gullah and in the speech of some young African Americans born in the Southern United States. She explains that the stream–scream merger is a highly stigmatized feature and that many of the students in her study who used it were referred to speech pathologists. She goes on to note the following about her research: "I also found a continuum that may indicate sound change in progress. If children said skretch for stretch, they probably have used the skr alternation in other words that contained the feature: skreet for street, skrong for strong, skrike for strike, skranger/deskroy for stranger/destroy. There were some who said skreet for street but did not make alteration on other words with that sound". (p. 44). Also, although Dandy does not make this point, it is important to note that the students' use of /skr/ may have been affected by the training they were getting from the speech pathologists.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. (vol. 1). ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2)., ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3). 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Gimson, A. C. (1980). An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English (3rd ed.). London: Edward Arnold Publishers. ISBN 0-7131-6287-2. 
  4. ^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001). A Course in Phonetics (4th ed.). Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt College Publishers. ISBN 0-15-507319-2. 
  5. ^ Changes in Progress in Canadian English: Yod-dropping, Excerpts from J.K. Chambers, "Social embedding of changes in progress." Journal of English Linguistics 26 (1998), accessed March 30, 2010.
  6. ^ a b Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  7. ^ Bauer, L. & Warren, P. New Zealand English: phonology in Schneider, E.W. "A handbook of varieties of English: Phonology, Volume 1", Mouton De Gruyter, 2005.
  8. ^ The first recorded use of the word gnu in English dates back to 1777, according to the Merriam-Webster's dictionary.[1]
  9. ^
  10. ^ HLW: Word Forms: Processes: English Accents
  11. ^ List of AAVE features contrasting with MUSE
  12. ^ Ebonics Notes and Discussion
  13. ^ Liberman, Anatoly. "The Oddest and Dumbest English Spellings, Part 15, With a Note on Words and Things". OUP. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  14. ^ a b c Phonological Features of African American Vernacular English
  15. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary - Ask